Show & Tell / Friday theme: Change

26 03 2010

I really have to apologise for my sporadic participation in the Show & Tell / Friday theme, but here’s at least an interpretation of today’s theme which is CHANGE, chosen by Saltis.

Our lives, as I have mentioned so many times before, will change in a week’s time (or so, probably Easter Sunday to be specific) when we leave Puerto Rico and move back to Brussels.

Here are some photos to show the way our everday views will change from living in San Juan to re-making a life in Brussels. It is probably not an entirely fair comparison, but I want to underline that I love both cities and just like I have missed Brussels, I will miss San Juan and our life here.

Viejo San Juan
Street life in Old San Juan

Brussels street view
Brussels street view

A rainy (midsummer's) day in San Juan
A rainy (Midsummer’s) day in San Juan

Belgian rain on Belgian National Day
Brussels on a rainy (National) day

Punta Escambrón, San Juan
Punta / Playa Escambrón, San Juan

Parc Leopold
Parc Leopold, behind the European Parliament, Brussels

The city wall in Old San Juan
The City Wall in the Old San Juan

Brussels City wall
The old City Wall in Brussels – not much left of it…

Plazuela de la Rogativa, San Juan
Plazuela de la Rogativa, San Juan

Manneken Pis on the National Day
Manneken Pis on Belgium’s National Day (21st July), Brussels

Raíces fountain in the Old San Juan
The Raíces (Roots) fountain in the Old San Juan (usually spraying passers-by with water)

Fountain in Parc Royal
Fountain in the Parc Royal, Brussels

Old San Juan by night
Old San Juan by night (seen from our departing cruise ship)

Grand' Place by night
Brussels Town Hall at the Grand’ Place, by night

I will try to make the blog round today but I can’t promise anything with all the things I need to do before the movers arrive on Monday morning…
Anki, Anna, Anne, Anne-Marie, Annika, Bejla, Desiree, Erica, Helena, IamAnnika, IngaBritt, Mais-oui, Musikanta, Nilla, Olgakatt, Petra H, Saltis, Simone, Sparkling, Strandmamman, Taina, and Under Ytan.

PS I did a similiar post comparing a Swedish autumn with autumn in Puerto Rico – click on the link.


Belgian house ads and my dream room

16 02 2010

Our last guests to Puerto Rico arrived on Sunday evening and they are enjoying the sunshine, warm temperatures and the beach to the fullest. My father said that it was the first time since December that they are not surrounded by snow… They are happy without the snow, and I am happy because my mother brought 4 new Swedish interior design magazines, Swedish sweets and cookies, almond paste for the Lent cream buns* and Prästost (Swedish cheese) for me (and O) to enjoy! We also got two cans of elk paté from Mrs N[eighbour] – not her delicious home-made paté because it has to be vacuum-packed for the US Customs but I am sure that it will be yummy anyway, and my father brought my black high-heeled winter boots that I had left in Sweden – maybe I need them in Brussels in April!?

Fastlagsbullar (Swedish Lent cream buns) made in Puerto Rico
Lent cream buns, baked in Puerto Rico in February 2008…

Speaking of interior design, as you all know, we are soon moving back to Brussels and I am checking the house ads every day on the Belgian web-site It is a huge difference between how a house for sale is being presented in Belgium and in Sweden. In Sweden almost all houses and apartments are staged / styled for a sale, photos look professional and the homes are de-cluttered to a maximum. The layout of the home is shown in a simple drawing – not so difficult to produce with computer programmes nowadays…

However, as I have already mentioned before, Belgian home ads are T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E: photos are blurry or just badly taken, no layout shown and the homes are most of the time not even CLEAN or TIDY in the photos! It doesn’t seem to matter if the home is being sold by a real estate agent or an individual, the photos are equally bad. Garbage bags in the middle of the kitchen floor, unmade beds with dirty laundry on the floor, cupboard doors open so you can’t see the room etc. And let’s not talk about standard… but we are willing to renovate and therefore try to see the potential in old homes without a proper bathroom or fitted kitchen. We don’t want to pay extra for somebody’s crappy renovation with flowery tiles and a cheap, unpractical kitchen.

house for sale with mess
A messy kitchen in a Belgian house ad… Not the worst that I have seen!

I didn’t participate in the Show & Tell / Friday theme in January when one of the themes was “My dream room”, but the other day I saw a photo of a room in a Belgian house ad that could be made into my dream room – inspired by Desiree’s description of her dream room and a recent Ikea ad:

My dream room would be a so-called “sun room” or covered veranda. Here the sunlight would flow through big windows. [—] I would have lots of green plats in the room. Both big and small pots with different plants. Many beautiful orchids. Here I would have a really comfortable armchair placed centrally with a nice footstool. The room would also have a small sofa where you could stretch out to rest or lie and read. Some beautiful wicker baskets on the floor with gorgeous fashion and interior design magazines. Over the sofa I would hang some cosy blankets to snuggle up in when it is cold outside. A small table in front of the sofa where you could put a big tea or coffee cup. [—] This would definitely be a room to rest and to enjoy the peace and quiet. (from Desiree’s blog, January 14 2010)

This is the Ikea ad:

A dream room

And the room in the house ad:

sunroom in Brussels

Can you see the potential? Too bad the rest of the house wasn’t very interesting… Or well, it could have had potential if it had had a garage / parking space, but it didn’t. To be able to park the car and not have to desperately drive around and around the block trying to find parking every evening is one of O’s requirements. One of mine is to have a metro station within walking distance (max. 500-700 m away). And we want a small garden.

We are not too stressed about finding a house, and will of course wait until we are back in Brussels so that we will be able to visit any potential homes. What is great is that we already know Brussels and we know in which areas we would want to live. After having studied the market for the last 6 months I think that we can recognise a good buy when we see it.

Update: I forgot to publish this photo of the Swedish visitors watching the Winter Olympics in the Caribbean…

Watching the winter Olympics

*) We should make the Lent cream buns TODAY as it is Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras / Fettisdagen…

Show & Tell / Friday theme: My first job(s)

5 02 2010

I have decided to participate in the Friday “Show & Tell” again, it’s been a few months and I think that I have found my motivation again! Anna in Stockholm is the hostess for February and she has chosen the following themes:

5 February: My first job (Mitt första jobb)

12 February: Cars (Bilar) – Sorry, no Valentine topic this year! 🙂

19 February: Life after death (Livet efter döden) – Apologies for the morbid subject but I find it interesting to think about what happens after we die, if anything, and how miniscule our lifespan (as individuals) is in the history of the universe, or even that of mankind

26 February: Show without tell (Visa utan att berätta) – A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Tell us something with one or more pictures. No words allowed!

Today’s topic is “My first job“, which caused a bit of a dilemma; should I write about my first summer / part-time job, or my first real job? It would be hard to illustrate* any of the [first] jobs I have had, but in the end this is what I came up with**:

Thinkpads x3
Three out of four Thinkpads – and that’s just in O’s and my home! I am writing this blog post though on a Dell…

Guess where my first summer jobs were… My father found me summer jobs three years in a row in the company he works for. The first job was working in the reception / switch board, which was fun but a bit confusing. I never realised how hard it was to spell people’s names (for the name tags) and once I said “Good morning” when it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon, to the caller’s amusement who said something about somebody sleeping on the job…

Then I worked for two summers in the warehouse where I had to do inventory of computer and server parts, help the service technicians who came in for spare parts plus buy ice cream in the petrol station across the street for my boss, colleagues and myself. My brother had the same summer job a few years after me but I am not sure he got free ice cream 😉 Nevertheless, he’s working for the company as well now…

North of Sweden by air
North of Sweden by air

The summer after graduating from high school, I spent a week in Härjedalen (region in the middle/north of Sweden) planting pine tree saplings with a friend of mine and her family. We used a tool known as pottiputki*** (Finnish for…?) and we were paid 0.20 SEK (if I recall correctly) per seedling! Lots of mosquitoes and gnats (knott), and I had a terrible cold – not a good combination, trying to breathe through your mouth but not swallowing any tiny black flies, euck! It’s been my only outdoor job and it was quite nice, despite the annoying insects.

Swiss flag

The year between high school and starting university, I worked as a “jeune fille au-pair” in a Swiss-Swedish family in Geneva, Switzerland. I took care of two little girls aged 5 and 7, cleaned the house, did the grocery shopping in France and studied French twice a week. It was a tough year but I enjoyed it, and I still keep in touch with the family. I am even friends with the oldest girl on Facebook! Hopefully I will be able to see them this summer when we are hoping to go to Switzerland with my parents to see my father’s uncle’s widow, as well as my friends living in Geneva.

By the way, my two best friends from home, the ones I wrote about on Tuesday, were au-pairs in Dijon, France (Å) and Madrid, Spain (L). The three of us have continued living the international life, with Å in Copenhagen and L in France.

Grand Hotel in Lund
The Grand Hotel in Lund

While a student at Lund University I worked as a cleaning lady at the Grand Hotel, as well as a substitute kindergarten teacher. It was a very interesting experience working as a cleaning lady – I realised that most people pretend that you don’t exist (and don’t even flush the toilet before leaving a hotel room) and completely ignore you. It is also highly annoying with hotel guests who refuse to leave the room while it is being cleaned. One Japanese family gathered in one corner of the room and I had to vacuum-clean around them!

The job as a kindergarten teacher was much more rewarding and I couldn’t believe that I was paid to read stories, draw and play with children. It almost didn’t feel like work after having changed heavy sheets and scrubbed toilets in the hotel! However, you get tired from spending a full day with lots of children too, but it is more mental than physical.

UN office in Geneva
Flags at the UN Headquarters in Geneva

Before moving to Brussels in June 2002, I had a 5-month internship at a small Human Rights NGO in Geneva. I spent most of my time monitoring meetings at the European HQs of the UN, learning lots of UN-acronyms and realising that as an NGO-representative you get to sit at the far back in the meeting rooms. The UN Commission on Human Rights was an intense but fun experience, and the end-party afterwards, organised by the UK delegation (I think) was wild.

Breydel building seen from the side
Not the best photo of my first office building in Brussels – the Breydel! All the European Commission buildings in Brussels have names – mostly named after the street where they are situated. The Breydel is on the corner of Rue Breydel and Avenue d’Auderghem

Then I finally got my first real job in June 2002 at the European Commission in Brussels. I was hired and paid by the College of Europe but working at the Secretariat-General of the Commission as a legal analyst. All of a sudden I had to learn EU-acronyms and forget everything I had learnt about the UN system and focus on the EC legislation!

My French, Greek and Spanish colleagues, all of us young university graduates, were at the lowest end of the food chain as we were not fonctionnaires (civil servants) like our older colleagues. I learnt so much in the 2½ years I worked for the internal database analysing and classifying legal and administrative documents and I met some of my best friends in Brussels during this first job. However, at the time I could get so tired of the French contingent – mostly because I worked all day in French and was too exhausted to speak French in my free time as well!

Berlaymont building
I never worked in the main Commission building, the Berlaymont, since it was under renovation when I worked at the Sec-Gen. The same week I changed jobs within the Commission (to AIDCO / EuropeAid) in October 2004, my former colleagues moved into the newly refurbished and HUGE Berlaymont.

I will add an up-dated list of Show & Tell participants as soon as possible…

*) Because isn’t that the whole point with the “show & tell”?
**) I didn’t really managed to illustrate what I did, just the places where I worked!
***) Expensive stuff, apparently it costs over $300!

How many languages do you speak?

19 11 2009

I get this question all the time here in Puerto Rico, and apparently O gets it as well – about me, his wife, not about himself (he speaks Spanish, English and more French than he thinks). He told me yesterday that he brags about his wife who speaks several languages and understands even more (Danish, Norwegian, understand written Dutch). However, personally I always feel a little embarrassed when I start listing the languages – Swedish, English, French… and nowadays I guess Spanish but not so much Italian anymore.

First of all, because it is not that many – not if you have lived in Brussels where almost everybody [in the European Commission / Parliament circles] speak at least three languages. And secondly, because I don’t write French very well, nor Spanish and my Italian is almost non-existent, so I don’t think that those languages count fully. Some people will find this statement false modesty, but really, I know a lot of people who speak these languages (and others) much better than I.*

A bi-lingual sign at the lift

When I lived in Italy 2000-2001 my Italian was passable – I communicated with my Italian friends in Italian and I could get by, but I haven’t spoken many words of Italian since 2005 when I visited an Italian friend in Valencia. Since then I have concentrated on learning Spanish and the languages are just too similar [for me]. I have an Italian ex-colleague who is married to a Spanish woman; they both speak each other’s languages + French (and English of course) and they now live in Portugal and are learning Portugese (only Romanian missing!) – I don’t know how they do it, but maybe it is different when your mother tongue is a Latin language?

How do you define knowing a language and what do you consider to be fluent? I do consider myself to be more or less fluent in French, even though my grammar could be much better… I read books in French, as well as in Spanish (and used to read also in Italian), which I think is a great way to improve your [at least passive] understanding of a language. It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand every single word, as long as I understand the context.

Just today I was asked the question again, and after the “oh’s” and “ah’s”, I felt once again the need to explain that as a Swede, living abroad, you need to speak other languages as nobody speaks Swedish… And remember, I have lived in three bi-, tri- or quadlingual countries; Puerto Rico (Spanish & English), Belgium (French, Dutch & German) and Switzerland (German, French, Italian & Romansch), so I am used to people speaking more than one or two languages around me.

A lot of my friends also speak at least 3 languages, and have lived in at least 3-4 countries – so I am not that special. Take the example of my three best friends from my hometown [in Sweden] who live in Oslo (also lived in Denmark, France, Switzerland, Tanzania); Copenhagen (previously lived in France, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland) and the south of France (as well as Spain). All of us have foreign partners and communicate in different languages every day – at home, at work and in our social lives. It is not something we think about too much, we just do it  😉

Recently I have read a very interesting book, The Story of French by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, about the history of the French language and I will probably come back to this publication, but what is interesting with the Canadian authors is that they are a bi-lingual /bi-cultural couple who speak both English and French. Jean-Benoît is French-speaking from Quebec, and Julie is English-speaking from Ontario. Apparently they had a period when they swapped the language spoken at home every other week! A very interesting method to guarantee language equality and improve both persons’ linguistic knowledge. Maybe something O and I should attempt, but at the moment I am just looking forward to my B-I-L arriving tomorrow, which will force me / us to speak Spanish at home for a week!!

Read more about my own language history here.

*) And I was taught to compare myself to the ones that are better than I, not worse. I guess my father’s way to make sure that I excelled in school…

Dreaming of a home of our own

31 08 2009

On Saturday O and I found a dream apartment… in Brussels!

It had a small terrace overlooking the Park, 400 metres from a metro stop, including a garage (box fermé as it is called in Brussels), a small kitchen that needed refurbishing but already with a double-sink (Hallelujah!!), a huge living room with big windows in two directions and two bed rooms. We immediately tried to call friends in Brussels, could somebody help us check the place out? Maybe O’s brother could get a Ryanair ticket from Zaragoza to look at it…

This morning we found out that the place was already sold – of course! When things seem too good to be true, they usually are… Obviously somebody was quicker than us to react and scooped up a lovely apartment with lots of potential…

kitchen 2003
An empty kitchen just when I had moved in (2003). I shared the apartment with a French friend for a while before she moved upstairs to the attic flat just above (when she moved out, my boss moved in – upstairs, not with me, but that’s another story)

Kitchen in 2004

I got this outdoor set of table and chairs from a Spanish friend who was leaving Brussels when I needed furniture for the kitchen (my flatmate brought the old table with her when she left). Another Spanish friend broke one of the chairs, and I think O might have broken the other one… Spanish men are heavy!?

Kitchen with improvised counter space

When O moved in with me, in early 2007, he made this extra counter space from two Ikea Bekväm tables and a spare counter top from the bargain corner.

bedroom 2003
The bed room just when I had moved in, 2003

Bed room
My bed room in 2005 – with my cuddly seal called Umbrella on the bed!

While I continue searching for our future home in Brussels, a few things strike me:

  • If apartment ads were half as staged as the Swedish ones, you could actually see how the place looks like instead of focusing on open cupboard doors, dirty laundry, unmade beds and other blurry images of the objects for sale
  • Does anybody actually cook in Brussels? If the kitchens have been renovated in the last 30 years, it is with shoddy materials, no sense of practicality or planning…
  • Can anybody work as a real estate agent in Belgium? There is a myriad of companies (and their photos don’t look a single bit more professional than those of the individuals who pose their ads on*) that don’t seem very professional or serious. Sometimes you will see the same apartment for sale by 4-5 different agents. Different angles on the photos but still all as bad…

Some of you might remember a similar, an equally ranting post about apartments in Spain… scarily almost exactly a year ago (28th August)! Scary, because we are in exactly the same situation as a year ago, not knowing too much about the future and I keep surfing the internet to look at apartments and dreaming of a home of our own…

bathroom 2003
An interesting looking tile job on the bathroom walls – compare with the kitchen wall.

Living room 2003
Living room in 2003 – the red colour was really not by choice, I don’t even like red and prefer blue. However, the cheapest Beddinge sofa bed was sold in red, and then I found a cheap red and white rug… Later on I bought a white corduroy cover for the sofa and a white carpet, definitely more my style!

Dining room 2004
Dining room when I had bought a proper dining table! The same coat is in THREE of the photos and illustrate the lack of a place to hang coats by the front door. My father finally put up a few hooks behind the door in the dining room (see the photo below, the coats can be seen through the glass in the door).

Dining room
The dining room later on became the living room… but I don’t seem to have any photos of that arrangement.

The photos are from my old apartment in Brussels – not staged and I would never try to sell an apartment with them! Obviously this was before my blogging days, as I have hardly any photos of my home without people in them. I was just thinking that it was a pity that I didn’t take photos of the rooms before we moved, it would have been nice to have as a memory, when I thought of my father’s photos (on a server that I can access remotely)… Every time my parents came to visit, my dear father seemed to have taken photos of my home! (some of them are mine though) 

A kitchen full of stuff...
This is the kind of photo people would post on the internet when trying to sell their home – you don’t see anything of the kitchen, just all the stuff… O and I had so much food and kitchen utensils, as you can see. Maybe that’s why I don’t have many photos of the last 8 months in the apartment – it was just too full of things and furniture when O had moved in!

*) The equivalent of in Sweden. A website to find houses and apartments for rent and sale in all of Belgium – both for real estate agents and individuals selling their homes without the “help” (??) of a professional.

If you are European and you aren’t going to vote…

6 06 2009

…you should be ashamed of yourself*!!!

There is no excuse – nobody who reads any newspaper and / or watches the news can have missed that the European elections are taking place tomorrow**. I just can’t believe one survey made in Sweden which claims that 1 out of 4 Swedish voters do not know about the elections!
My busy friend Å in Copenhagen wrote on her Facebook status the other day: “[I] took a two minutes detour for democracy while rushing between work and kindergarten and speed-voted for the European Parliament. So anyone claiming “I did not have time to vote” will need to look for another argument…”
If you have other excuses why you are not voting – check out this blog (in Swedish) for some reasons why you should vote!

Many languages at the European Parliament

If you are still wondering how the European Parliament and its elections work – check out this FAQs on BBC News, information in Swedish here and this link to the European Parliament itself.

The European Parliament in Brussels
The European Parliament in Brussels

We are 375 million Europeans in 27 countries to vote for the European Parliament, which means that it is the biggest “trans-national election in history” (according to BBC News) and if that isn’t a reason enough to exercise your right to vote, consider that TODAY (6th June) the 65th anniversary of D-Day was celebrated in Normandie! See how far we have come with European integration since that day in 1944! Think of that and don’t tell me that the European Union isn’t important!

The Berlaymont building seen from Schuman
The Berlaymont building in Brussels which houses the European Commission

Why are Swedes such Euro-sceptics together with the British? Well, I think that it is very much a problem of how we look at Europe – as the Continent, or in other words as them, not us. We don’t feel as European as a Belgian, German, Italian or French. In most countries on the Continent the European flag always flies next to the national flag, and people cross borders and use Euros without considering it “travelling abroad” anymore…

Aix-en-Provence, France
The City Hall in Aix-en-Provence, France flies the European flag

Zaragoza, Spain
The City Hall in Zaragoza, Spain with the European flag

Lisbon, Portugal
The European flag outside a theatre in Lisbon, Portugal

My 89-year old grandfather is one of the anti-EU Swedes (but according to my father he has already voted!) and I think for his generation in Sweden it is a question of fear – they remember the mess of the Second World War, which happened mostly on the Continent and not in Sweden (even though both Norway and Finland were very much involved). So, while Europeans his age remember the war and therefore support the European idea, he and his generation in Sweden still want to keep out to avoid involvement.

Bastogne war monument
American war monument in Bastogne, Belgium

What I can’t understand is that the younger generation is still sceptical – haven’t they realised the marvels of being able to travel, study and work anywhere in Europe? Not having to worry about visas and work permits…

Trains, Venice
Arrivals and departures at the Venice trainstation – cross-border trains to Geneva (not part of the EU) and Slovenia

And if you are one of the critics of the European Union, without exercising your democratic right (obligation!), I believe that you have no right to criticise – there are lots of Euro-critical parties to vote for!

I am European and I am proud of it! GO and VOTE!!

The European flag in Bruges, Belgium

*) In Swedish there is a saying that goes something like “you will never be a prophet in your own home[town]” and unfortunately O is one of the Europeans who hasn’t voted! I have told him that it is unforgiveable, especially as he has lived and studied / worked in two different European countries, and is married to another European! Without the European Union we probably never would have met…
**) Some member states, such as the UK and the Netherlands have already voted earlier this week.

Living in Brussels…

4 05 2009

Every spring for the last three years I have been wondering about my future. Three years ago I was wondering if we were going to move abroad – O had been offered to move to Texas, two years ago I was wondering when we were going to move to Puerto Rico, one year ago I was wondering when and where we would be moving next and… Well, once again I am wondering when and where!

Montgomery in Brussels

There is a big probability that we move back to Brussels at the end of the year, and it doesn’t feel too bad actually. Both my visit last summer and my most recent Brussels trip in February, made me realise that I wouldn’t mind returning to the capital of Europe!

Here are some of the Brussels thoughts I wrote down over a coffee at the sandwich shop Pulp by Schuman in February:

It is easy to:

  • live in Brussels
  • to get addicted to the international life in Brussels
  • to leave Brussels, i.e to travel to other European destinations (London 2½ hours by train, Paris 1½ hours, Amsterdam 3 hours)
  • to get a kick out of using all your language skills in one day
  • Many languages at the European Parliament

  • to eat cheap and well in Brussels
  • to find a charming apartment with high ceilings with stucco, and old fireplaces in Brussels
  • to fall in love in Brussels
  • to make new friends in Brussels
  • to get quick and good health care in Brussels
  • to figure out the metro system as there used to be only 2 metro lines – this has been changed since April

A very high door in a Brussels apartment

However it is also easy to:

  • to get stuck in Brussels because you can’t think of a better alternative
  • get so tired of the rain (even though I managed to get sun stroke in a local park my first summer in Brussels)
  • to find a crappy, draughty old apartment with a tiny toilet
  • to get shockingly high electricity bills from trying to heat a draughty apartment
  • to become very annoyed with the complicated bureaucracy
  • to get your heart broken in Brussels
  • to realise that all of your friends have left Brussels in the last year
  • to always be late if depending on public transport, especially buses and trams
  • Trams and buses in Brussels

  • to be sick and tired of the traffic
  • to live in Brussels and only see the Grand’ Place when you have visitors
  • to live in Brussels and never see the Belgian countryside
  • to live in Brussels and not speak / learn French
  • to not recognise the city after a year away…

Personally it would be easy to move back for O and I since we know the city already (despite the last bullet in the list) and we still have quite a few friends who live in Brussels, even though we have a lot of friends who have left – including some Belgians! And it would indeed feel like moving home.

Brussels backyards